If you’re pregnant, have a young child, are planning a family, or just want to switch your family to a plant-based diet, one thing on your mind is probably whether a vegan diet is suitable for children. Well fortunately the answer is – absolutely!
In fact, a vegan diet for children is supported by health organisations around the world, including the world’s largest organisation of nutritional professionals, the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the NHS in the UK, and the First Steps Nutrition Trust – an independent public health nutrition charity that provides information and resources to support eating well from pre-conception to five years. The trust states: “It is perfectly possible for infants and children to get all the nutrition they need from a vegetable-based diet.”
Meanwhile, the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that plant-based diets are: “Appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.”
As with any diet, especially for young children, careful planning is of course required. But this applies to everyone, whether vegan, vegetarian, omnivore or other. And overall a vegan diet has been heralded by the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
So, parents can be safe in the knowledge that leaving animal products off their children’s plates is a healthy option, especially when compared to diets high in processed meat such as bacon, ham, burgers, nuggets and sausages. In fact, in 2015 The World Health Organization announced they had sufficient evidence to classify processed meat as carcinogenic to humans, while plant-based diets have been shown to reduce the likelihood of conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity.
A balanced diet
As with all diets, parents should ensure vegan children receive a variety of foods including sources of protein, calcium, vitamin B12, iron and omega 3. All of these nutrients are possible to obtain on a plant-based diet. We’ve outlined some of the key foods that can help to ensure these dietary needs are met:
- Chickpeas and products made from them, such as hummus
- Soya and products made from them including tofu and soya mince
- Nut butters (do not feed whole nuts to children under five as they are a choking hazard)
- Dark-green vegetables
- Wholegrains including brown rice and wholemeal bread
- Beans and lentils
- Dried fruits such as prunes, figs and apricots
- Fortified cereals and plant milks
- Fortified foods such as milk alternatives
- Tahini (also used to make hummus)
- Ground almonds
- Leafy vegetables
- Fortified foods including:
- Soya and plant-based yoghurts
- Non-dairy milks, including oat, coconut, almond and soya
- Yeast extract (choose a brand with low salt)
- Nutritional yeast flakes
- Flaxseeds (otherwise known as linseed) and flaxseed oil
- Rapeseed oil
- Soya oil
- Soya based foods, such as tofu
- Ground walnuts or walnut butter (for children under five; whole nuts can be served to older children)
High calorie intake:
Growing children also need a high-calorie diet, as they burn a lot of energy. Therefore, it is recommended to offer foods which contain ample healthy fats. Options such as avocado, hummus, and nut and seed butters are a fantastic way of ensuring your child eats calorie- and nutrient-dense foods. Snacks such as apple slices spread with peanut butter, or rice cakes spread with hummus are always a firm favourite with my plant-based 14-month old!
Food can also be cooked in oil to add extra calories – from pasta dishes to curries – or even drizzled on pizza, veggies or salads.
Feeding children lots of food that is high in fibre but low in fat is not recommended as too much fibre can make little stomachs feel full quickly. And feeding children smaller but more frequent meals and snacks can help to ensure they consume more calories throughout the day.
Vitamin supplements can also be offered to children, and the UK’s Department of Health recommends that all children age six months to five years are given vitamin supplements containing vitamins A, C and D every day. It is also recommended that breastfed babies in the UK are given a vitamin D supplement from birth.
Some parents worry that their children will ‘miss out’ at social occasions or at school if they only eat a vegan diet. However, there are vegan versions of almost every food imaginable available now, so your child can enjoy the same foods as their peers are eating – from healthy options to treats such as sweets, cake and burgers (obviously it is recommended that treats are eaten in moderation).
Many parents also worry they could be taking away a child’s choice to eat animal products by feeding them a plant-based diet, but as a vegan diet is proven to be healthy, a whole array of alternatives is available to animal-based foods, and cruelty is being left off their plate, there’s really nothing that children are missing out on. In fact, they may even thank you for not feeding them animal products: many non-vegan children grow up shocked to realise that the foods they are eating come from their animal friends. That’s exactly how Genesis Butler – the 12-year old activist fronting the Million Dollar Vegan campaign – decided to go vegetarian and then vegan when she was a small child.
There really is nothing to lose in trying a vegan diet. For more information on how you and your family can try vegan for Lent and beyond, download the Million Dollar Vegan, Vegan Starter Kit. And for more details specifically about a vegan diet for infants and young children download the guide from First Steps Nutrition.